The role of Vivian Bearing, the acerbic John Donne scholar dying of ovarian cancer and ravaged by experimental chemotherapy in Wit, is a terrifically difficult one in that it requires a very broad emotional range--from wry detachment to mortal pathos--but at the same time it necessitates sustaining a single note almost from curtain to curtain: It is only in the play's closing scenes that Professor Bearing's cold and cerebral remoteness is breached by the agonizing final facts of life. Cynthia Nixon seems an unlikely choice for a role associated with Emma Thompson; though she had a distinguished stage career before Sex and the City made her a household name, there is a kind of insubstantiality about Miss Nixon--an Ophelia, not a Lady Macbeth. And she seemed merely competent, and even a trifle unsteady, in Clare Booth Luce's The Women. Whether she has summoned some previously unknown steel or has been superbly directed by Lynne Meadow, her Professor Bearing is a remarkably vivid and complete character, the most skillfully executed in the three or four versions of the play I have seen.
She is also the funniest. Whereas Stephahie Barton-Farcas emphasized the anger and desperation of the character, as well as the savagery of her humor (The New Criterion, May 2010), Miss Nixon brings to the role pinpoint comic timing. There is a great deal of humor in the play that would not be obvious on the page, moments of levity that are entirely dependent upon timing and other subtleties inexpressible in the stage directions. For instance, one of the play's funniest and most poignant moments--it is necessary that they go together--comes when Bearing is visited in the last days of her life by her academic mentor, E. M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish). With Bearing unable to do anything but lie in bed and suffer, Ashford asks if Bearing would like her to recite some Donne. "No," is her answer--but it is an extended, anguished, despairing no, in a syllable communicating precisely where Bearing is at that second: weary of everything, even of her beloved Holy Sonnets, rueful that her aloofness cannot protect her from inevitable suffering, but, at the same time, watching the scene with a third eye, a sort of second-order aloofness, and appreciating the absurdity of it all. Ashford instead reads to her from Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny--and is incapable of stopping herself from pointing out the literary techniques deployed therein. Criticism is a compulsion.
The obsessive and compulsive nature of serious scholarship is as much the subject of the play as cancer is, and orthography is given as much attention as is oncology. Whereas other Bearings may be imperious, acting with indifferent forethought, Miss Nixon interprets the character as a high-order nerd, complete with deficient social skills. Though the Asperger-lite personality type she adopts is in my experience much more commonly found in economics departments than in English departments, the style is a familiar one: Her seeming lack of self-awareness is the product of a very powerful brain that is painfully aware of itself--and everything else--all the time. Miss Nixon's Bearing is not so much cruel as clumsy.
And while that interpretation is a welcome variation, it also serves to bring forward some of the structural deficiencies of the play, one of which is that it is too long, even though it is a short play. Particularly extraneous are the flashback scenes in which Bearing is shown to have been something less than a font of human kindness during the course of her academic career. Her delivery of petty cruelties on her despised undergraduate students is both incongruent with what we have learned of the character so far (that her sins are in the main those of omission rather than commission), but at the same time redundant: We know already that she has not been a warm and fuzzy professor. Those scenes manage to say things we already know about Bearing, about which we …